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February 15, 2017 BOOKLIST
Find more Hard-Boiled Gazetteer
What makes a perfect setting for hard-boiled and noir fiction? Most people might say city streets, but that isn’t quite right (don’t forget country noir). What city streets do in Raymond Chandler’s novels, for example, or in classic film noir, is contribute to a sense of alienation (think of Richard Widmark on the run in Jules Dassin’s classic Night in the City). But country back roads can also be plenty alienating—take the Ozarks in the work of Daniel Woodrell. It isn’t the streets per se, in other words, but the feelings they help create. Similarly, another key element in a perfect hard-boiled setting is corruption. Our hero finds himself (or, increasingly, herself) trapped in a corrupt world and alienated from it; he or she may give in to that world, attempt to fight it, or try to negotiate some sort of separate peace, but in the end, it is the omnipresent landscape of corruption that defines the action. And, finally, the perfect hard-boiled location should offer an assortment of stylish or beautiful accoutrements that, by standing in sharp contrast to the corruption and spirit of alienation, only serve to intensify them. Miami feels like an art deco Armageddon in part because the swaying palm trees and stylish architecture become parodies of themselves in the face of the horrors that await a Carl Hiaasen or a Charles Willeford character. This phenomenon of symbols coming to embody their polar opposites also explains why, for many people, Christmas is the most depressing day of the year.
So given all that, how does Italy stack up as a hard-boiled setting? Old World corruption always trumps the New World version, and no setting does Old World better than Italy. From larcenous medieval popes through feuding Mafia families and on to the legions of crooked politicians and power-hungry bureaucrats who keep the trains from running in contemporary Italy, the landscape of corruption is as much a fabric of Italian life as extra virgin olive oil. And, of course, the glories of Italian art and culture do just fine in the role of those Miami palm trees.
Until recently, though, the most popular European fictional detectives—at least with American readers—remained Agatha Christie’s mustache-twirling Belgian, Hercule Poirot, and Georges Simenon’s big-brained Parisian, Inspector Maigret, both of whom use their masses of gray matter to restore order whenever chaos threatens. In the carefully structured Old World of our imaginations, we need to believe that tradition can always be preserved if a really smart guy works at it hard enough. That notion of the Old World began to crumble, however, when globalization—and, especially, rampant Americanization—brought a very different climate to Europe. Tradition tumbled like Saddam’s statue when McDonald’s arrived on the Champs-Élysées, and order was threatened by more serious issues, such as the new wave of racist violence prompted by the fall of the iron curtain. Suddenly, even big brains weren’t enough to fight off chaos and the moral ambiguity that comes with it. As fast as you can say Big Mac and fries, the table was set for a feast of European noir, and not surprisingly, Italy served up the main entrée.
It began, at least in this country, with works by American and English writers, who either lived in Italy or knew enough about the country to set their series there. Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen novels and Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series led the charge, both featuring world-weary policeman adept at battling bureaucrats but always on the verge of being overwhelmed by the complex web of deceit and corruption that surrounds them. Melding the unabashed realism of American hard-boiled private eyes to a peculiarly affecting and distinctly Italian strain of melancholy, these browbeaten coppers soldier on, losing as they win, winning as they lose.
Lately, we’ve begun to hear from the Italians themselves, with the arrival on our shores of translated works by such writers as Andrea Camilleri, Carlo Lucarelli, Giampiero Rigosi, and Massimo Carlotto. Camilleri’s hero, Inspector Montalbano, is very much in the tradition of Zen and Brunetti, but the other writers tend to favor stand-alone thrillers featuring embattled heroes on the fringes of crime, not unlike the characters played by Robert Mitchum in American film noir.
The following list traverses the length of Italy and includes a sampling of works by Italian, American, and English authors. Original U.S. publication dates appear in all imprints.
Grazia Negro series, by Carlo LucarelliRepresentative title: Almost Blue. Tr. by Oonagh Stransky. 2001. City Lights, paper, $11.95 (0-87286-389-1).
The most well known Italian sleuths are aging melancholics, but Lucarelli, who sings in a postpunk band and has written 11 novels (this is the first to appear in the U.S.), gives us Grazia Negro, a hip, young female detective working with a newly formed unit to track down serial killers. Here they hunt a psycho who finds his prey while cruising Bologna’s underground music scene. What gives this novel its spark is Negro’s encounter with Simone, a young blind man who spends his time listening to jazz and tuning into the sounds of the city on his scanner, which captures the voice of the killer.
A Leila and Francesco novel, by Giampiero RigosiRepresentative title: Night Bus. Tr. by Ann Goldstein. 2006. Bitter Lemon, paper, $14.95 (1-904738-11-7).
Evoking both 1940s film noir and the work of Rigosi’s fellow Italian Massimo Carlotto, this spot-on caper tale pairs compulsive gambler Francesco and the savvy Leila, a hustler who robs the men she picks up in Bologna’s bars. On the run throughout the city (bus driver Francesco knows the byways well), the pair attempts to evade various thugs who want the 50 million lira Leila stole from one of her marks. Rigosi combines a Tarrantino-like feel for bursts of violence set against humanizing moments of ordinary living.
Florence and Tuscany
Homer Kelly series, by Jane LangtonRepresentative title: The Dante Game. 1991. Penguin, paper, $6.95 (0-14-013887-0).
Langton’s series, starring Harvard professors Homer and Mary Kelly, is usually set in Concord, Massachusetts, but the pair takes the occasional trip to Italy (see also The Thief of Venice). Here they’re in Florence, where Homer is teaching for a semester and where he becomes involved in something called the Dante Game, designed to combine a tour of Florence with study of the great Florentine poet. Then the game begins to generate dead bodies, and Homer, once a detective, is called upon to use his sleuthing skills. Fairly standard mystery fare, but the Dante angle is fascinating, and the climax in Florence’s Duomo is a stunner.
Marshal Guarnaccia series, by Magdalen NabbRepresentative title: Property of Blood. 2001. Soho, paper, $12 (1-56947-310-2).
This installment in Nabb’s long-running series shows why Salvatore Guarnaccia, the self-effacing carabinierie marshal stationed in Florence, is among the genre’s most appealing cops. Part Maigret, part Columbo, the blue-collar Guarnaccia solves crimes almost in spite of himself. This time the case leads him in multiple directions, one involving Jewish refugees during World War II, another concerning the plight of today’s Albanian immigrants. Handled less subtly, Guarnaccia might have become a sentimental figure, but Nabb places him in an utterly unsentimental world, a place where his sensitivity typically leads to his own heartbreak rather than others’ salvation.
Carlo Arbati series, by John Spencer HillRepresentative title: Ghirlandaio’s Daughter. 1997. St. Martin’s, $22.95 (0-312-15133-0).
When Florentine poet and police inspector Carlo Arbati agrees to accept a literary award in nearby Lucca, you know he’s walking into trouble. Soon he’s assisting a fellow cop in a case involving art fraud among the expatriate community. Arbati combines the poetic sensibility of P. D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh with a continental joie de vivre that proves irresistible, and the supporting cast of idiosyncratic expatriates is equally delightful. If the story itself seems overly reliant on formula, the Tuscan ambience provides more than adequate compensation.
A Four Women novel, by Ann CornelisenAny Four Women Could Rob the Bank of Italy. 1983. o.p.
The late Cornelisen’s caper novel about four expatriate women who rob the bank of Italy isn’t especially hard-boiled, but it offers an exhilarating tour of the Tuscan countryside—perfect reading for the Italian tourist. As the four women struggle with their consciences, Cornelisen exhibits a clear understanding of how corruption affects daily life: “In Italy, the right things always happen for the wrong reasons,” unlike in the U.S., where “the wrong things happen for what seems the right reasons.”
A Giorgio Pellegrino novel, by Massimo CarlottoThe Goodbye Kiss. Tr. by Lawrence Venuti. 2006. Europa, paper, $14.95 (1-933372-05-2).
Pellegrino, a former left-wing terrorist, wants to return to Italy and is willing to do anything—including selling out his former friends—to do so. And, worse, he wants a shot at respectability, even if it takes an armored-car holdup and numerous murders to make his dream possible. There’s nothing to like about Giorgio, yet we watch transfixed as he makes his climb from the sewer to the Milan suburbs, one bloody rung at a time. Perhaps the most difficult kind of noir novel to pull off is the crime tale narrated by a bad guy—not a crook with a heart of gold but somebody who does bad stuff for bad reasons. Italians manage this trick much better than most Americans, and Carlotto is at the top of the class.
Aurelio Zen series, by Michael DibdinRepresentative title: Cosi Fan Tutti. 1997. Vintage, paper, $12.95 (0-679-77911-6).
Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen series jumps around Italy as Questura Commissario Zen moves from assignment to assignment, and it jumps even more dramatically from noir to comedy (see Dark Rain, set in Sicily, for the noir side). Here the world-weary Zen finds himself in the middle of a comic opera, struggling with a case that parallels the action of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutti, complete with the Naples setting and a plot about lovers testing the fidelity of their mates. And yet, the story itself is a believable Zen adventure in which the beleaguered cop once again lands in an enormous muddle encompassing bureaucrats, criminals, friends, and lovers.
Nic Costa series, by David HewsonRepresentative title: The Sacred Cut. 2005. Delacorte, $22 (0-385-33849-X).
Rome police detective Costa shares the lead in this outstanding series about a trio of antiestablishment cops, all no-nonsense guys who find ways around whatever bureaucratic obstacles confront them. Beginning with a stunning set piece—it’s Christmas Eve, and the Eternal City is blanketed by a freakish snowstorm, setting the otherworldly tone for a ritual killing under the dome in Hadrian’s Pantheon—Hewson offers a masterful blend of high-concept historical thriller (Pérez-Reverte) and cynical contemporary Italian procedural (Dibdin).
Inspector Anders series, by Marshall BrowneRepresentative title: The Wooden Leg of Inspector Anders. 2001. St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne, $23.95 (0-312-27838-1).
Inspector Anders of the Rome police was a hero once—he lost a leg fighting the Red Brigades—but inertia has become a habit, with corruption engulfing Italian society like a killer virus. Now the inspector, on the verge of retirement, must complete one last task: rubber-stamp a bogus report on the murder of a southern Italian judge. He plans to do just that, until the wife of the deceased prompts him to go after the truth. A James Bondish finale gets in the way, but until that point, Browne has readers wallowing in the ragout of corruption and illusion that drives much of the best Italian crime fiction.
Jonathan Argyll and Flavia di Stefano series, by Iain PearsRepresentative title: The Immaculate Deception. 2000. Simon & Schuster, paper, $13 (0-7432-7241-2).
This seventh in Pears’ series of art mysteries starring art-history professor Jonathan Argyll and his wife, Flavia di Stefano, of the Rome police’s art-theft squad, may be the best yet. This is a series whose main characters’ abiding distrust of institutions forms the bedrock of their commitment to one another. And, yet, Pears’ people are not melancholy cynics; rather, they possess a joie de vivre that seems to flow from the startling discovery that, even in a world soiled by universal corruption, on the one hand, and deadly idealism, on the other, it’s still possible to look at beautiful pictures or enjoy a delicious lunch.
Inspector Montalbano series, by Andrea CamilleriRepresentative title: The Snack Thief. 2003. Viking, hardcover, $21.95 (0-670-03223-9).
Perhaps even more than Iain Pears’ Flavia di Stefano and Jonathan Argyll, Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano always has time for a good lunch. And yet, unlike, say, Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen series, which has moved over the years from unabashed noir to dark comedy, the Montalbano novels, as they have appeared in the U.S., began by putting a distinctly comic face on noir subject matter but gradually have begun to lose their smiles. This one—in which Montalbano, investigating two seemingly unrelated murders, senses that the fix is in and sets out to unfix it—strikes a perfect balance between light and dark, mixing hard-boiled terror and the comic frustrations of daily life as gently as one might stir a risotto.
Aurelio Zen series, by Michael DibdinRepresentative title: Blood Rain. 2000. Vintage, paper, $12 (0-375-70830-8).
The early Zen novels established the Rome policeman as perhaps the quintessential browbeaten European cop, exuding a uniquely hard-edged, no-holds-barred cynicism—light years from the squishy idealism lurking beneath the hard-boiled exteriors of most American detectives. Then the series took Zen on several comic road trips (see Cosi Fan Tutti, above). He’s on the road here, too, posted to Sicily to spy on the State Police’s anti-Mafia operation, but this may be the darkest—and most multifaceted—Zen of them all. Like Jake Gittes in the movie Chinatown, Zen must ask himself that fundamental noir question: Will finding the truth only make matters worse? This time the inevitably ambiguous answer takes on a macabre twist as we are left to ponder whether Zen’s last words (“at least we’re alive”) represent the bitterest of ironies.
Guido Brunetti series, by Donna LeonRepresentative title: Blood from a Stone. 2005. Atlantic Monthly, $23 (0-87113-887-5).
The appeal of Leon’s Guido Brunetti comes not from his shrewdness, though he is plenty shrewd, nor from his quick wit. It comes, instead, from his role as an everyman. He is trapped in an impenetrable bureaucracy; his bosses are either foolish or corrupt; and he lacks the power to do what’s right. (Just like back home, eh, Joe?) Here, as he investigates the murder of an illegal immigrant, he quickly realizes that the crime is only the tip of an iceberg he will never be allowed to explore. He trudges on, though, solving nothing but doing good around the edges—and helping his wife and children make some sense of their own feelings about the immigrants. Crime fiction for those willing to grapple with, rather than escape, the uncertainties of daily life.
Urbino Macintyre series, by Edward SklepowichRepresentative title: Deadly to the Sight. 2002. St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne, $23.95 (0-312-26955-2).
This is the least hard-boiled of all the series mentioned in this list—it’s almost classical in tone and, although set in contemporary Venice, seems to belong in one of E. M. Forster’s early-twentieth-century Italian novels. Still, the Venetian ambience is palpable, and the hero, American expatriate Urbino Macintyre, is a fascinating man of mystery. Here, as Macintyre tries to determine who killed an elderly lacemaker, Sklepowich effectively mixes a fascinating tour of Burano, the “lace island,” with tantalizing glimpses of Macintyre’s private life. Ambiguity of every kind—sexual, intellectual, artistic—drives the plot and soaks the air like humidity.
An Adam Miller novel, by Joseph KanonAlibi. 2005. Holt, $26 (0-8050-7886-X).
Kanon’s setting is postwar Venice, yet he finds in the shell-shocked survivors of Nazi occupation, who endured the nearness of evil if not a direct confrontation with it, a sense of dislocation and moral uncertainty that parallels today’s world. Adam Miller, an American in Venice, begins a tumultuous relationship with a Jewish woman whose wartime experience has left her with deep psychic wounds. When a murder jolts all the principals from their hidden pasts, Adam is torn between righting wrongs and protecting those he loves. Portraying a world where alibis are the currency of the era, Kanon juxtaposes a powerful love story and a gripping thriller against a palpable historical moment.
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